How to survey impaired driving


Since we live in a representative democracy, we vote for the folks to sit in “parliament” and represent us in discussions about every aspect of policy. Hopefully, everyone starts off with the basic facts. How these facts are interpreted is then up to the representatives who can be prejudiced when it comes to deciding what’s in our best interests. Since we vote for these people, it’s difficult to complain but there are times when it might be better if we could get rid of all of them and start over.

As an example of the problem, let’s think about how to make policy about driving while under the influence of drink and drugs. In a perfect world, no one would recklessly put others in danger by voluntarily driving while impaired. But that’s not how human nature works. As a species, we’ve always tended to be a little selfish and inclined to do whatever we want.

So when it comes to making policy, federal government needs to collect as much reliable information as possible about our habits. Since 1973, the National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drugged Driving has been held five times. This is organized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and it asks police officers or private contractors to stop drivers in about sixty cities around America and collect both information and saliva and/or blood samples. To encourage people to cooperate and give the samples, participants are offered payment.

So let’s start with the problem from the perspective of the police. They already have the power to run roadside sobriety checkpoints but, as a general rule, there’s no general power to stop drivers unless there’s reasonable suspicion a moving offense has been committed. These intermittent surveys cannot be classified as a sobriety checkpoint and people are stopped randomly, i.e. there’s no suspicion they have committed an offense. So many police forces have refused to be involved in running these surveys or supporting private contractors while they run them. Indeed, some states like Tennessee have passed laws banning law enforcement’s participation.

For private contractors, the situation is complicated. They have no right to stop a vehicle and no right to compel any driver to give samples. From the driver’s point of view, absolutely everything is voluntary. There’s a case pending in Reading, Pennsylvania alleging a driver’s constitutional rights were infringed when he was stopped by a civilian contractor. It will be interesting to see what happens to this case.

The number of deaths with alcohol as a factor rose 4.6% in 2012 to 10,322. This is clearly a safety issue that ought to be addressed by federal and state governments. And it’s always better for laws to be passed based on the best available evidence. That’s why the current system is so unfortunate. There ought to be be clear federal authority for proper tests to be run around the country. As it stands, individual drivers, law enforcement officers, and civilian contractors have no clear guidelines on how they are supposed to behave in stopping and being stopped. We deserve better from our elected representatives.

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